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"I believe in Sweden" - A young human rights activist in the making

"I believe in Sweden" -  A young human rights activist in the making

A day after publication of our public appeal on behalf of  Swedish/Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak who has been imprisoned in Eritrea for the last twelve years, (Arne Ruth/Susanne Berger, Dagens Nyheter, "Dags för allvar i fallet Dawit" 28/6/13;, 03.07/2013), we received a remarkable letter  from  a Swedish teenager called Vanessa Berhe.

Vanessa is the niece of Seyoum Tsehaye, an Eritran journalist who, just like Dawit Isaak, vanished without a trace in September 2001. His family has been fighting to learn the truth about his fate ever since. Their struggle, however,  has not attracted  much attention in Sweden, because unlike Dawit, Tsehaye is not a Swedish citizen.

Both men's single offense, Vanessa stressed,  was to strive for what the average Swedish citizen takes for granted - fundamental civil rights and liberties, beginning with freedom of speech.

"That Dawit Isaak, despite his Swedish citizenship, was imprisoned in Eritrea without valid trial, for no real offense, is unbelievable, "Vanessa wrote. And added:." In a few hours, he lost all his human rights and his [human] worth."

She added that her uncle Seyoum, had had even less of a chance of escaping arrest, because Eritrea does not grant any of the most basic civil rights to its citizens.

The fight to learn the truth about her uncle has carried on during most of Vanessa's life time, yet the faith in Sweden, her native country, is absolute : "I believe in Sweden ....I am a citizen and I enjoy all the rights as they are enshrined in Swedish law ...When I entered high school  [gymnasiet] last fall  and I told  my new classmates about Seyoum, I was overwhelmed by their reactions, their great frustration about the situation. "

Vanessa added  that it is time to act now on behalf of the prisoners  currently held in Eritrea "not because someone is Swedish, but because they are  human."  And, as she says,  if not  democracies like Sweden,  who will provide such help?

This statement touches upon something fundamental and essential:  Sweden's democratic values are not only rock solid, they are an inspiration. 

It is, after all, Sweden  that produced a Raoul Wallenberg and Torgny Segerstedt in World War II, a Harald Edelstam during the 1970's dictatorship in Chile. It is a country that  opened its doors  to the Isaak and Berhe families and proportionally has taken in more refugees and exiles in the wake of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  than any other country in Europe or the U.S. As Vanessa's letter makes clear, that readiness to help  others in  need is an integral part of what it means to be a Swedish citizen.

That is precisely why expectations of Swedish  leaders are so high. In other words, Sweden truly means something to  young people all over the world. It represents the belief that Swedes in general - both the public and its elected representatives -   live their stated democratic creed.   And that is important for Sweden's political establishment  to remember.

Young Swedes like Vanessa would not dream of  blaming Sweden's Foreign Minister Car Bildt or his colleagues if their  efforts  to free Seyoum Teshaye or Dawit Isaak ultimately failed. They would, however, be extremely disillusioned if they  ever got the sense that the Swedish government  is not doing everything in its power to win their release.

During a debate in the Swedish Parliament  this past February, Carl Bildt pointed out  that Sweden  today is a "humanitarian Super Power", ranked  No.3 in the world in terms of worldwide annual aid dispensed. However, numbers  alone do not tell the story.    Sweden's financial contributions, while impressive, cannot detract from the fact that  the country has failed  to flex  its  political muscle on behalf of political prisoners like Dawit and Seyoum.

So far, Sweden has not effectively communicated to the Eritrean government and to the world that it will simply not take "no" for an answer when it comes to Dawit Isaak. For example, the Swedish government has yet to take any punitive actions against Eritrean diplomats stationed on Swedish soil. In sharp contrast, Canada - which like Sweden has important economic interests in the Horn of Africa-  decided last month to  expel Eritrea's head of mission in Toronto, for persistent  violations  of U.N. sanctions. Swedish government officials undoubtedly care  what happens to prisoners like  Dawit Isaak and Seyoum Tsehaye, but they  have yet to show  that they are willing to act decisively on their behalf.

As for Vanessa, she plans to start an organization called OneDay Seyoum, with the intention of solving her uncle’s fate. "My goal is to inform, to engage people and, hopefully, to affect change,” she says.

Well, Vanessa Berhe, you  have already done just that.


Arne Ruth
Susanne Berger


Vanessa Berhe's letter:

Dear  Susanne Berger and Arne Ruth,

My name is Vanessa  Berhe and I  read your fantastic article on the case of Dawit Isaak in yesterday's newspaper. I have read much about this topic  but your article laid out new perspectives and brought up new ideas. Ever since the discussion about Dawit Isaak started,  I have followed developments closely, in part because of the whole thing being so unimaginable, but also because of my personal connection to the case. I am the niece of journalist Seyoum Tsehaye. In the  autumn of  2001, he too was imprisoned; in one day, he went  from being an honored journalist to a powerless prisoner of conscience under the regime of Isaias Afewerki.

This you obviously  know already since you are the first Swedish journalists ever to mention Seyoum. I am  very happy that you report about his fate and I was  very  moved when I saw that you wrote about my cousin's courageous actions in Geneva. It struck me that those who wrote this commentary, meaning  you, showed a genuine interest in the case, given that  the topic is not exactly "current".  Also, you wrote about the situation from a global perspective and not from the micro perspective like many articles about foreign affairs are  so often written. You wrote about democracy and its principles in a way that inspired me, and hopefully many other readers.

I cannot help but take this opportunity to contact you. When I began high school [gymnasiet] last fall, and I told  my new classmates about Seyoum,  I was overwhelmed by their reaction,  their great frustration over the situation, and it got me thinking about how much active concern has gone to waste. I am therefore currently working on starting an organization called OneDay Seyoum, with the purpose of publicizing Seyoum's fate and  to give people a chance to change it. My goal is to inform, to  engage and, ultimately, to  affect change. I intend to do everything in my power to have OneDay Seyoum reach as many people as possible, first in Sweden, but then also in the rest of the world; because the case of Seyoum Tsehaye is not just a Swedish case, but a human one.

That Dawit Isaak, despite his Swedish citizenship, became imprisoned in Eritrea without a fair trial, for a crime that does not even exist, is unfathomable. He traveled from Sweden, one of the most democratic countries in the world, as a Swede,  and landed in Eritrea,  now also as an Eritrean [citizen]. In a few hours, he lost all his rights and his human worth. Sweden has not only important possibilities to free him, but it has an obligation to do so. Seyoum, on the other hand, went nowhere, he remained Eritrean, he did not lose his civil rights, for he never possessed any. And it was in pursuit of them that he ended up where he is right now.

I am Swedish and I enjoy all the human rights as they are protected under Swedish law. What happens to those populations whose governments do not care about their people? There is no 'social worker' for neglected persons; [Autocratic ] regimes can simply do what they want. That's when it is time for the surroundings to react. For just as Václav Havel says, we who are citizens of democratic states must adhere to the humanistic and democratic principles we claim to be bound by, to  help others - not because a person is  Swedish, but because he or she  is a human being.

I plan to launch OneDay Seyoum in the fall, when it will have been twelve years since Seyoum, Dawit and the other journalists were deprived of their freedom without any cause.  In connection with this, I will produce a short film (I have contacted a student who has just graduated from the Royal Dramatic Arts College here in Stockholm and who will help me to make the movie). It will be a summary of everything that has happened, everything that has not been done, but also a beginning of something new - a new movement, a new generation, determined not to let things go as they have for twelve years, not without a fight.  I therefore hope that you are willing to help me publicize this project, to be a part of it, by taking advantage of the privileges you enjoy as  journalists and researchers, the very privileges that Seyoum and the other imprisoned  journalists are fighting for - an opportunity to contribute to the kind of  democratic process the journalists attempted to start in Eritrea but that was so brusquely halted.

I believe in Sweden and therefore I believe that OneDay Seyoum can succeed. I believe in Swedish journalism, and therefore I believe in you.

I hope to hear from you soon,

with best regards,

Vanessa Berhe

June 29, 2013

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